IN MOVING rapidly to comply with a court’s decision that his prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is ineligible for office because of a conviction for contempt of court, Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari may have managed to defuse the latest chapter in the country’s battle between the judiciary and the executive. But it is unlikely to be for long – yesterday another court issued an arrest warrant for Zardari’s choice to succeed Gilani, textiles minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin.
The charges are unrelated – a case of violated quota limits for the export of ephedrine as health minister – but it is also likely Shahabuddin will soon be summoned before the supreme court and the controversial and combative chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to be asked to reopen long-running money-laundering cases against Zardari. His predecessor’s refusal to obey a court order to do so led to his dismissal, and the court is unlikely to prove any more forgiving to Shahabuddin who will probably take a similar stance. The supreme court had challenged a 2007 amnesty involving thousands of corruption cases which had paved the way for a return to civilian rule. The government insisted, however, that Zardari, the widower of assassinated Benazir Bhutto, had immunity as the head of state.
Shahabuddin may well find his new post a poisoned chalice. The country’s economy is in desperate straits with recourse once again soon to the IMF seen as increasingly likely. Power shortages and lengthy blackouts, which have this week provoked three days of rioting in the Punjab, show no sign of easing. And both the militant Islamist political threat on the streets and Taliban insurgencies in the country’s tribal homelands remain undiminished threats.
Zardari and Chaudhry have been bitterly at odds in a personal war in the courts since 2009 when the former opposed the sacked chief justice’s reinstatement. It is a battle which reflects however a deeper underlying tension between the country’s democratic and authoritarian tendencies, with the military watching from the wings for its chance again to seize power. Gilani appears to have been caught in the crossfire.
But the president, who has shown a repeated willingness to sacrifice acolytes to prolong his own survival, would do well to heed the growing discontent. That will only be fuelled by the court clash and what many see as another sign of the government’s corruption and illegitimacy. An election is not due until March next year. He would do well to bring it forward.